Friday, February 08, 2008

Religious Discourse in the Political Domain

An Argument Without Appeal to Religion

(This is an expanded version of an editorial I recently submitted to the local newspaper.)

A recent letter to the editor in the local paper took issue with political issues being aired in and by religious institutions. The writer essentially argued that it is improper. He asserted that were he to attend a church service and something he deemed political be put forward he would walk out.

But the writer did not address the question itself of whether religion does or ought to have voice in the political life of a society. True, the author of the letter and, no doubt, a large number of others would argue that it is improper, or even immoral, for a religious organization to support, endorse, or oppose particular candidates or parties. The fear is that allowing religious authority to influence a political race could lead to a despotic theocracy in which one candidate, party or position would receive divine approbation and all others divine recrimination. This fear is so pervasive in American society that charitable tax exemptions can be withdrawn if the IRS determines that a religious institution has endorsed or condemned a particular party or candidate.

I would certainly agree that it is highly improper for a religious leader to endorse or oppose particular candidates. Even when such opinions are expressed as personal opinions there remains potential for a perception of an institutional endorsement. What's more, taking such specific public positions risks linking the religious institution to one or the other party or candidate, and thus potentially alienating members of its own flock who might support the other side.

However, it is irrational to suppose that religious institutions and religious leaders should be silent regarding all things political. Indeed, it is impossible. While it would be immoral (if not illegal) for a religious institution to endorse particular candidates or parties, it would be hypocritical for a religion to proclaim certain values and then remain silent in the face of political issues that directly relate to those values. This is decidedly different from supporting or opposing candidates and political parties. To argue otherwise is ipso facto to deny to religion the right to a voice in the public sphere and the right to integrity in what it proclaims.

Every religion, and thus every religious institution, deals with matters of faith and dogma, of belief and practice. 'Practice' necessarily entails matters of ethics and morality. This is because all religions encompass a way of life and as such influence how practitioners interact with others and the way questions of ethical import are framed and resolved. Differing faiths may hold differing views, but it is axiomatic that any faith will influence its adherents in accord with the principles that faith proclaims.

The coherence between what a religion preaches and what it demands in practice constitutes its internal integrity. The charge of hypocrisy is rightly laid at adherents of a religion when their practice and behavior betrays an incongruity with what the religion believes and proclaims. When a religion itself is discovered to be fully incongruent in its practice versus its belief people rightly deem it a cult and a scam.

Inevitably, what at the micro level is the province of ethics is at the macro level a matter of politics. The principles that guide my interactions with others inform my views on decisions that relate to the larger community in which I live and the state and country of which I am a citizen. Thus if my faith informs me that a particular practice is sinful or harmful to an individual, I will also deem it harmful to the community. If a particular position holds true for my interaction with individuals I will likely also consider it valuable for the larger society. It is the natural outcome of my adherence to the way of life that is part and parcel of the religion to which I subscribe.

The movement from a believed ethical principle to the formulation of a political imperative is not in and of itself a bad thing. As ethical positions are tested against the grindstone of the larger community more extreme positions are smoothed and softened to meet the demands of applicability to the larger group. This is particularly so in a democratic republic like our own, which values religious freedom.

It is undeniable that many of the freedoms and rights Americans value and enjoy either have their origin in religious belief or are at least historically endorsed and strengthened by religious belief. Consider: religious voices were at the heart of the argument to end slavery, end suppression of equal rights on the basis of color, and fight for women’s suffrage. The argument against the death penalty is largely influenced by principles regarding the equality and dignity of human life, which also drives the pro-life movement. Ideals of concern and care for the less affluent and the needy in our society have their origin in religious principles of charity, an idea actually originating in religious teachings.

Thus, it is irrational and inconsistent to demand the silencing of the religious witness in our society. Political discourse depends on the evaluation of societal beliefs and principles, which for many people are themselves necessarily informed and guided by religious principles. The values of a society may be said to originate in and be sustained by the religious beliefs of its citizens. These religious beliefs lead citizens to promote values that enter the larger political discourse and contribute to political decisions promoting the welfare of all citizens. Again, as noted above, when religious values enter the political dialogue extreme positions are moderated and viable consensuses emerge.

That not all share the same religious convictions, or that some have no religious convictions at all, does not invalidate the value of religious input in political discourse. Indeed, it strengthens it. Politics, often defined as the art of compromise, seeks to find the common ground and the inclusion of religious principles aids in that quest. If we hold to freedom of speech, the voice of religion must be accepted as a valid contributor to the political dialogue of the nation.

Yet, some desire to silence religion from having any part in political dialogue. In recent years, religious institutions, from small communities to larger organizations, have been threatened for proclaiming positions which impact the political debate. As noted above, the threat of withdrawing a religious institution’s tax exempt status is often a powerful governmental tool, and those who wish to silence religion are increasingly apt to file complaints with the IRS in the hopes of accomplishing their goals.

This is both particularly nefarious and silly. Nefarious: because the threat that speaking out could lead to civil or criminal sanctions flies in the face of a basic democratic principle (freedom of speech). Silly: because it is illogical to think that if a religious leader actually did publically support this or that position and by extension this or that politician or party, a) the whole group of adherents would blindly vote accordingly; and b) that in the absence of such an endorsement the rank and file would be completely unaware of the institution’s particular position on the question. In other words, this assumes that religion is Svengali-like in swaying believers into zombie-like manipulation. It betrays a prejudice against religion and itself risks the rise of a despotism grounded on the charge of an opponent’s alleged or presumed despotism.

As a minister of a religion that predates this society by nearly two millennia, I cannot in good conscience remain silent. I must and will continue teaching the truths that have brought salvation and consolation to literally generations upon generations of humble believers. How I vote and for whom is no one’s business – except for God and me. But, I must proclaim my Church’s teachings on morality and ethical issues with clarity and fidelity to the Church Fathers who shed blood to pass on that Faith. From Jerusalem to Rome to Washington, DC, this Faith has produced good citizens, enriched society and contributed to the greater common good.

Firmly believing in the principles of the American Republic, I would be hypocritical if I did not proclaim the Faith I hold.

And, after all, in a world of drugs and degradation, violence and scandal, barbarity and irrational hatred, is there not room for a belief in Divine sacrificial love?


Byzantine, TX said...

Bless, Father. Salient points all. Posted link to this worthy read.

The Byzantine Rambler said...

Thank you. I pray my thoughts were cogent and beneficial.

earlcapps said...

Interesting reading, and a pretty noteworthy side-track from your usual discussions. I wouldn't be surprised if this makes you some new friends.